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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Why Reactionary Legislators Try to Curb VISTA Effort

In San Jose, Calif., three VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) workers helped organize a food co-op in a lower-income neighborhood. They also are developing a store on wheels to reach elderly and handicapped people.

In the Harvey, Ill., VISTA, Joe Horan helped a community group form a consumer committee which reached an agreement with the utility company on a winter no-shutoffs policy.

Elsewhere around the country, some of the 4,300 VISTA volunteers working with over 700 sponsoring organizations are (1) assisting poor farmers to form agriculture co-operatives for greater economic self-sufficiency, (2) working to diminish bank redlining in multi-class neighborhoods and (3) informing the poor about their legal rights and how to assert them.

Although such activities form only a small fraction of what VISTA volunteers do, a clutch of right-wing members of Congress, led by Congressman Robert Michel (R-Ill.) are mounting an attack on VISTA’s $34 million-a-year budget and on its parent agency, ACTION, in general.

Liberals (or is the word now “progressives”?) never have adequately appreciated the usefulness of reactionary congressmen. Whenever the reactionaries find time away from the corporate cohorts who prop them up with dollops of jeremiads against terrible Uncle Sam (when he isn’t playing their Uncle Sugar), they almost always manage to expose those government programs that do work.

Government programs which empower people–consumers, the elderly, the sick and the poor–to advance their legitimate interests invariably attract the expressed ire of Michel and other VISTA opponents such as Ronald Reagan. If malarial mosquitoes were corporations, Reagan would not disturb their watering holes. He might concede, however, the need to relieve the discomfort of a few model victims.

Certainly the actual tiny assistance by VISTA workers to help poor people organize themselves is not what is disturbing these raucous reactionaries. Rather, it is the glimmer provided by VISTA that government should equip economic victims of society with their long-denied rights and remedies.

In the post-World War II generation, the expansion of government programs has served mightily to further entrench large corporate power against the plight of small business, small farmers, farm workers, consumers, small taxpayers, tenants–people who, you might say, make up a sizable part of this country. These programs are the ones which subsidize, license, contract with, grant to and shield big business from competition.

To permit the government a reversal of this trend toward concentrated private power is heresy for legislators who favor the corporate state. And heresy is infrequently nourished by evidence. Again and again, Michel and others have failed to back up their charges of serious “fraud, conspiracy and illegality” which they have hurled at VISTA and ACTION and its director, Sam Brown.

It is useful to compare Michel’s assault on VISTA with his legislative record.

While opposed to active VISTA volunteers (who receive $317 a month), he supported raising his own salary by an additional $12,900 a year in 1977. He consistently has backed raiding small taxpayers’ revenues to subsidize big industries, most recently the profitable airline industry. He has championed programs involving huge Pentagon waste and mismanagement that accrue to the private treasuries of the weapons industry. He votes regularly against the kind of tax reform that does justice for working men and women. His anti-consumer record is so extreme that out of 18 key consumer votes in the House of Representatives last year, Michel voted 17 times against consumer health, safety and economic interests.

This is by no means all that should be known about legislators who find even a smidgeon of compassionate justice uncongenial to their peace of mind. A voting record is, after all, the tip of the iceberg that would reveal the operations of one Robert Michel.

One might think that the Democrats would jump to constructive partisanship over the VISTA controversy. But Jimmy Carter is too busy worrying about whether the oil industry is making enough money to produce more oil. Presidents who pay little attention to mass poverty and injustice in their country do not stimulate their friends in Congress to make the necessary exertions.